Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

The independence of the Arts Council?

Sybil Crouch, ex-chair of ACW contributes to the debate on the independece of the organisation

I support wholeheartedly the comments by Simon Harris and would like to add a few more from personal experience.

What is particularly worrying about the proposals to absorb the Arts Council & other cultural bodies into the civil service, is that to date no reasons have been given as to why this would be "a good thing" i.e. what benefits would accrue to the arts, to artists or to the citizen from the change. Instead, the organisations (NMGW, National Library ACW etc) have been required to say why it shouldn't happen. Given that there will also inevitably be significant costs involved in transferring control to the Assembly surely some sort of analysis of benefits is a minimum prerequisite?

I applied for the (unpaid) job as chair of the Arts Council (the first occasion you could actually apply rather than be "appointed", i.e tapped on the shoulder) because I didn't think that ACW was accountable and certainly the attitude amongst some Council members and officers at the time was that it was "their" money and nobody had a right to question how it was spent. The fiasco of the so-called "Drama Strategy" was a manifestation of this - against the background of decreasing funding and little interest from government. However things changed dramatically after the establishment of the Assembly in May 1999 (1 month after my appointment as chair). As a direct result of the drama strategy & the ensuing uproar amongst artists, politicians and communities, Richard Wallace was commissioned by the Assembly to undertake a detailed review of ACW. The recommendations of the "Wallace Report" were accepted by the Assembly and I, and by then, many new Council members, began the long and tortuous process of "re-structuring" and in the process trying to cut bureaucracy and make ACW more open and accountable.

The benefits of working closely with the Assembly were clear - ACW received significant uplifts in funding and as a result, for example, revenue clients got an unprecedented 15% increase in their grants. The Council also got agreement that as the Assembly would end up subsidising the Wales Millennium Centre that 2million extra should be available to presenting venues in the rest of Wales to enable them to programme more theatre, dance & music performances for local and regional audiences. So far so good. At the same time the Minister for Culture (& Sport & Welsh language)was taking an increasingly close interest in the individual decisions of ACW. As Chairman I received what was an unprecedented "instruction" that Council should provide a further year of Lottery funding for Theatr Clwyd's Mobile Tour - despite the lack of evidence of benefit and against the advice of officers and the independent assessor. In the event, Council "defied" the Minister and refused Clwyd's appeal against the decision not to fund.

Since then, Ministers have got even more involved in deciding who gets the money (without the benefit apparently of those tedious application forms). Clwyd have been given 100k for the Mobile; Chamber orchestras are funded directly by the Assembly; Swansea have got a "donation" towards a statue of a famous footballer....And the 2million, promised for when WMC opens in November this year? 100k of it spent by the Minister on funding the Mobile - and the rest? Apparently disappeared until 2006, 2007?

In the light of the recent re-structure of ACW and greatly increased scrutiny and involvement by Ministers, it would be hard to argue that this takeover is about increasing accountability. Nobody has proposed that it will save money - money, which would then be spent on the arts. Some will undoubtedly rejoice at the opportunity to lobby politicians directly - and we know there are certain special people who already have a direct line to those at the top. Until the Assembly explains the value, the benefit, the purpose of this move the cynics will draw the conclusion that this about patronage and about control.

author:Sybil Crouch

original source:
10 August 2004


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